Establishing Customer Relationships

This blog discusses developing relationships, establishing trust, and connecting with your customers

 You can have all the technical results in the world but no one is going to buy your technology if they can’t trust you. Selecting a new materials supplier is a big decision for most companies. A new supplier contract is a commitment to a long-term relationship. It establishes a dependence to deliver consistent, quality product on time. This type of relationship is both strategic and financial. Many companies go through great lengths to reduce new supplier risk, either through 1) slowly increasing order quantities coinciding with proven performance, or 2) using the technology in non-critical components.

Every subsequent step is driven by an underlying need to trust their supplier. The perception of risk comes from fear. Fear that their supplier, whom they depend on, will let them down. It could be through poor quality or delayed delivery. Supply chain disruptions have a real impact on a downstream consumer. I have lived many supplier disruptions while a product manager. The loses are both financial and emotional. Failure of a simple $2 part can create hundreds of thousands of dollars in downstream scrap costs. Once trust is lost, it is doubly hard to regain it. Establishing trust means that your customer can rely on you in a time of need and that you won’t let them down.

Establishing trust early is extremely difficult for a new advanced technology. Whether you are the new kid on the block or a larger organization launching a new product. You are trying to deliver something no one has ever made before. While large brands have the benefit of instant recognition and financial stability, they also must establish trust with a customer. I have seen large companies like 3M be locked out because the sales team failed to establish trust. Smaller advanced material startups have an extra hurdle of demonstrating professionalism, supply chain quality, and financial stability.

A customer’s sense of supplier professionalism is a feeling. Most people in the advanced materials market are engineers or scientists. The analytical thinking of this professional class pushes you to push for facts, figures, and features to establish trust. But research has shown that decision making starts from an emotional base. Without emotions, your brain is stuck analyzing a decision and unable to choose. Combine this with the fact that you only have 7 seconds to make a first impression. The stakes are high to set yourself up for success. Below are a few pointers I have collected that may help you start out on the right foot.

Don’t Sell Features

If you go to a customer site relying only on a set of technical slides, you are in trouble. Customers need information to make decisions, but information is not how you form relationships. The first meeting is like the first date. No one marries someone based on a list of features like; “…I am wealthy, good looking, etc etc etc…”. People, just like customers, want to know your background and beliefs. They need to get to know you to have a true relationship.

While it is important to review your technology to customers, features are inherently superficial. Opening with a list of features is a missed opportunity to ground the relationship. Instead, I prefer to establish a common belief and alignment of purpose. When I talk with customers about a composite additive, I would state “We believe that your resin systems can perform as well as the higher price competitors, and we are here to work with you to make that vision possible.” This alignment in vision and belief infers that we can help them displace competitors and grow. This infers financial benefits, like increased margin or revenue. At the same time, I am empathizing with them. I are saying, “I understand the challenges your company is facing and we are here to help.” This establishes a much deeper connection that can help carry the team through future technical challenges and testing.

The final point I want to make is that price is a feature. If you open with price or discuss pricing as a benefit, you are already losing the game. Instead of positioning yourself as a partner, you are positioning yourself as a commodity. You do not understand your customers’ pain points, you do not understand their business, and you are not there to help them solve the pressing issues facing their business. At best, you win a contract that can be quickly displaced by the next low bidder.

Create the Problem

Most people cannot imagine a new technology until it is put in front of them. No established material company will say that their top issue is material performance. Instead, their answer will likely be organizational, like increasing sales, reducing cost, or driving competitor differentiation. Having lived in the industry so long, most people have accepted their material “box” and cannot dream outside of it. I liken this to the faster horse analogy. As such, they do not think that material property performance is a top issue. They work on optimizing within the accepted limitations.

Start with Creating a materials problem before moving to Why

As such, much of your introductions is focused on expanding customer thinking. The best way to do this is to help them challenge the status quo. For example, if you have an improved corrosion resistance coating, you need to first get your customers to agree that corrosion resistance is an issue with their product performance. Even if they have the top corrosion resistant material in the world. Acknowledging these deep-seated limitations is the first step in connecting your solution with your customer. Many sales people fail to do this successfully. The one that do have been called a white whale.

Follow-up with Why

A big questions potential customers ask is why should I spend time on this opportunity. Every potential customer, partner, or alliance already has enough to do. They are all overworked and underpaid. Likely, they are worried about executing their annual strategic plan or trying to put out fires. Then you come along and ask them to drop everything to focus on you. Sorry buddy, that just ain’t gonna happen. You will fit within their priority list accordingly. If you are a big deal, you may see some progress within the year. But only if you focus on giving them a strong enough reason. You have to give them an answer to the question of why they should spend time on you. How does their company benefit by starting the evaluation process?

With my graphene startup, I would emphasize the ability to displace competitors, drive growth, and increase margin by using our product. These were the top three issues the company was struggling to accomplish in the current market. Other companies may be interested in new application spaces, reducing cost, or increasing on-time delivery. Find the why that resonates with your customer. The how and what will then fall into place during the technology evaluation and integration process.

Set Foundations for Long-Term Trust

Trust underlies every customer relationship. Everyone goes through an initial assessment period where they decide if they can trust this person. Establishing trust is the first essential component to any long-term relationship. Trust can help smooth other a miss-understanding and carry you through a disappointing test result.

Here, there are no shortcuts. Trust is built over time with clear, consistent communication. Follow-up on your commitments, stand by your word. A great book to read on this topic is The Speed of Trust. It highlights how trust underpins all relationships and outlines 13 key behaviors of trust-inspiring leaders. The same goes for selling.

“Trust takes time to build, but seconds to break.”

I will always remember one time I lost a customer’s trust. We were going through trials with a number of competing companies. I was open with the fact that we were “talking with everyone” but never spent time on the details. We were on a standard update call when I referred to their product at one of their competitors’ brands. The conversation stopped abruptly. The VP of R&D immediately corrected me. Quickly realizing my mistake, I apologized and corrected myself. But they were obviously less engaged for the rest of the call and I never heard back from the VP of R&D again. The relationship was ruined and we were never given another real opportunity.

There are several givens in how to behave. Be professional, honest, and direct. Deliver facts and acknowledge when you are not sure. Provide them with enough material for a customer to answer the top concerns of a customer. Don’t oversell or rush a decision. Great sales people, however, do more than just mechanics. Selling into the advanced materials space is all about customer relationships. Starting these relationships on the right foot and growing them over time is the fastest way to revenue and growth.

That’s all for now, thanks for reading!

Thoughts on this article? Please post comments and questions below!



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